Covering and the Classroom
I am going to continue a thread of conversation started by Bennett Capers while blogging on Prawfsblaw. In a wonderful riff on Rupaul’s Drag Race, Capers discussed the performative aspect of being the classroom.
One way of thinking about what we do is “covering” in the sense used by Erving Goffman and Kenji Yoshino. Yoshino and Goffman use the term in the sense of toning down “disfavored” identities. Yoshino’s primary example is covering sexuality — roughly it is not the pressure to stop being gay (assimilate) or don’t let people know you are gay (closet, pass), instead it is the pressure on openly gay people not to act too stereotypically gay.
I want to examine a slightly different idea of covering in this post, not the toning down of disfavored identities, but instead about how we cover elements of our viewpoints and identities in the classroom.
The place where my own covering in this sense is most obvious to me (and perhaps to my students) has to do with my political views and the ways in which they related to cases we tackle (for example, the pairing of Goldberg v. Kelly and Matthews v. Eldridge in Civ Pro). Very often I think I adopt what Socrates identified as a vice of the Sophists, to try and make the weaker argument the better, and merely play with the ideas and reasoning, rather than take sides.
What I have begun to wonder is, as a pedagogical matter, to what extent is this healthy. On the one hand, it models a skill our students will need: to make arguments in cases where they fundamentally disagree with the position of their clients. It also avoids having students who disagree with me politically tune out or treat my class as a “resistant read.”
On the other hand, I wonder if this form of covering causes us to come off as holding a pre-realist view of the law that few of us actually do. If I do not think the two cases can be reconciled but instead that they represent particular views of how the world should be, or pure politics, should I instead say that? And if I do (as I often do), should I take the further step and express a preference as to which world view I prefer?
In what other ways do we cover? Here is one that came to mind: In attempting to capture some of the aura of Kingsfield, the level of attachment, do we talk too little about ourselves as whole people basically hiding things like our families or interests? I tell my 1L students at the beginning of the year two things as a warning: (1) They were very interesting people before they came to law school with diverse interests, don’t let law school beat it out of them. (2) Law school is likely much more difficult for those close to them, in particular spouses and children, who are both the victims of the workload and also shut out of the intellectual engagement, and to try and bring those people in.
To the extent the professor does not discuss his interests or family in the classroom, is he thereby reinforcing these problematic vectors and expressing the view that the students should also strive to ‘cover’ in this way? When I switch the pronoun in the prior sentence of this post to “she” and “her” does this issue become still more fraught?
I’d also be curious about whether there are other domains where people feel they cover in the classroom?